Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton P.R.A., R.W.S., known as Sir Frederic Leighton (British, 1830-1896): An important bronze figure of 'An Athlete Wrestling A Python'

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Lot 32
Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton P.R.A., R.W.S., known as Sir Frederic Leighton (British, 1830-1896): An important bronze figure of 'An Athlete Wrestling A Python'

Sold for £ 106,250 (US$ 134,222) inc. premium
Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton P.R.A., R.W.S., known as Sir Frederic Leighton (British, 1830-1896): An important bronze figure of 'An Athlete Wrestling A Python'
on rectangular naturalistic base, signed, dated and numbered to one side F. LEIGHTON 1877 XXIV, and inscribed to the base verso PUBD BY ERNEST BROWN & PHILLIPS AT THE LEICESTER GALLERIES, LEICESTER SQUARE, LONDON., brown patina, the underside with number 1, 52.5cm high


  • Provenance
    Hartford Hall, Hartford, Cheshire
    Purchased by the vendors family at the contents sale of Hartford Hall, sold by Messrs' C.W. Provis & Son, Auctions & Valuers on behalf of the executors of the late Mrs K. B. Carver, Wednesday 14th February 1934, lot 128.
    Thence by family descent.

    One of the principal residences of the village of Hartford, Hartford Hall was originally a 17th century nunnery and a former manor house which was remodelled and extended in both the 18th and the 19th centuries

    Although a renowned and celebrated painter by the close of the third quarter of the 19th century, Leighton's success in sculptural terms did come until 1877 when he debuted his work 'Athlete Wrestling with a Python' at the Royal Academy. At the time, it was also alternatively known to reviewers as 'An Athlete Strangling a Python' and 'An Athlete Struggling with a Python'. However whichever title its reviewers used, the work was held to great acclaim by both critics and the public and it catapulted Leighton to an international spotlight later leading him to be later proclaimed the father of the English New Sculpture movement'. However even though he only returned to the medium of sculpture again twice with his figures of 'Needless Alarms' and 'The Sluggard', both of which were also highly successful and which in turn led him to encourage younger sculptors by commissioning Alfred Gilbert's figure of 'Icarus', it was this sculpture that defined him for posterity to critics and the public alike.

    Today 'Athlete Wrestling with a Python' is Leighton's sculptural masterpiece and was influenced by antique Greek sculpture, particularly 'The Laocoön' which formed part of the Vatican sculpture collection and which influenced the work of Michangelo.

    Representing a dramatic life and death scene of a classical male nude contending a python which is coiled around his left thigh and whose head is held at bay by his rigidly outstretched arm, the statues powerful and complex design commands a sense of suppressed energy and opposing forces momentarily balanced at a point of supreme tension. Although the striking realism of the figures anatomy was undoubtedly influenced by the sculptors of antiquity and the Renaissance it also owned a debt to contemporary French sculpture which gave it a naturalism far removed from the more pedestrian excesses of the neo-classical works produced by sculptors of a generation before.

    The model for the work was professional sitter, Angelo Colorosi who was a leading figure in the Italian group of professional male models in the later 19th century and from contemporary interviews which Leighton made with the Studio magazine in the early 1890's, the sculptor originally modelled it as a small-scale clay figure. However, the decision to turn it into a large-scale bronze was made on the encouragement of either Jules Dalou (French, 1838-1901) who was in exile in London during that time or Alphonse Legros (French, 1837-1911). Assisted by Leighton's protégé, Thomas Brock (British, 1847-1922), the full-size model first modelled in plaster and then cast in bronze by Cox & Son was then exhibited at the Royal Academy and its influence was far reaching to the new generation of emerging New Sculpture artists including the young Brock, Hamo Thorneycroft, Alfred Gilbert, Edward Onslow Ford and George Frampton.

    The sculptures popularity was sealed when it was purchased on behalf of the Tate by the Chantrey Bequest in 1877 and it won the gold medal when it appeared at the prestigious Exposition Universelle in Paris the following year. A monumental marble replica of the sculpture was subsequently commissioned by the wealthy Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen for the museum bearing his name in 1882 and much of the carving for this work was done by the New Sculpture sculptor Frederick Pomeroy (British, 1856-1924) at the start of his career whilst still working in Brocks studios.

    Reductions of the bronze were then published in an edition cast in two sizes by Ernest Brown and Phillips at the Leicester Galleries between 1903-1910 and the current lot appears to be a relatively early cast from this edition.

    Frederic Leighton was the son of doctor and began his artistic education in Italy when he travelled to Rome and Florence in 1840 before becoming a pupil of Zanetti and meeting the American sculptor Hiram Powers. Moving to Frankfurt in 1844 he studied under the Nazarene painter E. J. von Steinle at the Institut Staedel before travelling to Brussels and Paris then finally returning to Rome in 1852.

    Surrounded by a group of ex-patriot writers and artists such as Thackeray, Browning and Gibson, he established his reputation as a painter with his work 'Cimabue's Madonna carried in Procession' which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855 and subsequently purchased by Queen Victorian and Prince Albert for the Royal Collection.

    At the Royal Academy, Leighton progressed from ARA in 1864 and RA in 1868 to become President in 1878. At the same time in keeping with his growing stature he also began work on his house, no. 2 Holland Park Road (now the Leighton House Museum) in 1865. In public life, he was the only sculptor to receive a barony being created a baronet in 1886 and Baron Leighton of Stretton in 1896.

    Related Literature:
    Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond, Benedict Read, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Eminent Victorian Artist, 1996, Harry N. Abrams, Inc, Pub. with The Royal Academy of Arts, London, p. 182-183
    Peyton Skipwith, Sir Alfred Gilbert & The New Sculpture, British Sculpture 1850-1930, The Fine Art Society in association with Robert Bowman, p. 72-75
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